Theater & dance

In ArtsEmerson’s ‘Home,’ a community is under construction

The life cycle of a house interacts with the life cycles of its various inhabitants over time in “Home.”

Evgenia Eliseeva

The life cycle of a house interacts with the life cycles of its various inhabitants over time in “Home.”

What makes a house a home?

And how about after that transformation occurs: You can move out of a building, but how much of yourself do you inevitably leave behind in the home?

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“Any kind of living is a sort of community living,” says theater-maker Geoff Sobelle, 41, “because you are living among the traces of people that came before and you’re leaving traces for people who come after. Just the act of living is a kind of haunting.”

If it’s possible to say that Sobelle’s latest creation, “Home,” is “about” anything, it’s about these ideas. The show arrives at ArtsEmerson for six performances at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage this week before heading to BAM’s Next Wave Festival in December.

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“Home” begins with a mostly bare stage, upon which Sobelle and a group of actors build a house and then inhabit it, in a sort of time-lapse depiction of progressive generations all superimposed upon each other. There’s little to no spoken text, but lots of meaning as the life cycle of a house interacts with the life cycles of its various inhabitants over time.

The germ of the idea for the show came when Sobelle renovated a house he’d bought in South Philadelphia.

“I took the floor in the kitchen down to the dirt, and as I was doing that, I saw all these layers of linoleum tile, almost like an archeological dig,” he says in a telephone interview from Philadelphia earlier this month, where “Home” made its world premiere. “I just imagined all these generations of people who had lived in that house, one-sixteenth of an inch away from each other, fighting over the fridge at some sort of house party — all these ghosts.”

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“Home” is also informed by the ideas of Sobelle’s older sister Stefanie, a professor of contemporary American literature and culture at Gettysburg College and the dramaturg for “Home.” Stefanie Sobelle has a forthcoming book about the role of architecture in American literature. “I suppose we are all haunted by our memories of previous houses we have inhabited and of the traces left behind by those that came before us. In turn, we haunt those that come next,” she writes in a blog post related to the premiere of “Home.”

Though it’s very different in execution, “Home” follows up on notions Geoff Sobelle has explored in the past about people’s relationships with objects — most notably his first solo show, “The Object Lesson,” for which audience members sat on cardboard boxes amid an expressionistic rendering of the artist’s grandfather’s attic. That show was a surprise winner of the top honor at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, followed by an acclaimed run in New York and an extensive tour.

The success of “The Object Lesson,” which was conceived almost as a kinetic art installation, meant that Sobelle and team needed to adapt it to fit traditional theater spaces. A BAM commission, “Home” is designed for a large proscenium stage, with a clear distinction between the performance and seating areas. But it still involves the audience as active participants, particularly in the show’s later stages.

“I feel like he’s reinventing something about the idea of blurring the lines between performers and audience in a way that I think is really thrilling,” director Lee Sunday Evans says. “And it comes from such a particular and wise passion that he has as an artist.”

When audience members are invited onstage for “Home” to function as key players, there’s an important thematic resonance.

“We’re trying to find a different way of creating community, which is one of the intentions behind this type of theater,” says David Neumann, who directed “The Object Lesson” and is credited as choreographer for “Home.”

“The thing I really love about this work is sort of the large heart inside of it, always. And in some ways it’s like we try to get people to just love one another, even if it’s for a few moments onstage,” Neumann adds.

Performed in one act over about 90 minutes, “Home” seems to live somewhere in between art installation, performance art, and what we traditionally think of as theatrical performance. It proceeds at its own pace, creates its own environment, and progresses according to its own momentum.

That momentum suggests the life cycle of any house — or home.

“Once it starts it doesn’t really go backwards,” Sobelle says. “It’s that feeling of any kind of housing project or any kind of community building where it’s just going to keep getting bigger and more complex and complicated and intense until it sort of falls apart.”

HOME

Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, Boston,

Sept. 27-Oct. 1. Tickets $10-$90, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.
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